OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – Israel and the Vatican are negotiating a deal over the ownership and tax status of Christian religious sites in Al-Quds (occupied East Jerusalem).
"The Church wishes for safeguards against future ‘taking’ by the state of her property," a Catholic expert on church relations with Israel told Reuters Monday, January 18.
The church also wants "the restitution of certain properties ‘taken’ in the past," he said, referring to Israel’s demolition of a church in the northern Israeli city of Caesaria in the 1950s.
A new round of talks between Israel and the Vatican will be held in Rome in May to solve their deep-rooted dispute.
The Vatican wants the return of church land confiscated by Israel.
Churches acquired large amounts of land around Al-Quds as the Ottoman empire went into decline from the early 19th century, long before Israel’s creation in 1948.
Today, many official Israeli buildings sit on leased church land.
One of the disputed sites is a building in a narrow alley outside Al-Quds Old City.
Its second storey is the Cenacle where Christians believe Jesus held the last supper. Jewish tradition says the floor below is the burial site of King David.
Israel captured and occupied Al-Quds in the six-day 1967 Middle East war, then annexed it in a move not recognized by the world community or UN resolutions.
The city is home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, and represents the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The negotiations are also focusing on the tax status of religious sites in the holy city.
"The new state naturally inherited the obligation to respect and observe those rights created before it came into being," the Catholic expert said.
Israel wants the Vatican to pay debts accrued over years of taxes owed by the churches.
The Vatican says Israel should recognise its historic tax exemptions in the Holy Land that date back centuries.
The expert said the Vatican wants to safeguard its rights under international treaties and customs that date back before the establishment of Israel.
But an Israeli official familiar with the negotiations said Israel was worried that any broad concessions would set a precedent.
The Vatican and Israel decline to give details of the negotiations – such as the amount of tax involved or when a deal might be concluded.
"The sooner the better," said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon who travels to the Vatican in May for the next round of talks.
Under UN Resolution 181, which partitioned British-ruled Palestine in 1947 and led to Israel’s creation, holy sites are exempted from taxes.
"No taxation shall be levied in respect of any holy place, religious building or site which was exempt from taxation on the date of the creation of the State," it says.
(IslamOnline.net and News Agencies)